I got my first tattoo when I was about 27. It was a small little Kanji, or Japanese character, on my left shoulder that says “Faith”. To me, that tattoo represented a lot of things. It was for my daughter, whose middle name is Faith and whose pregnancy took a lot of faith and prayers for me to get through. It was for my faith in God and how it can sustain me through anything. It was about growing up and allowing myself to be myself and about taking a first tentative step away from doing only what I thought was expected of me by others.
A year or two later I got a colorful pair of comedy/tragedy masks on my left ankle, representing my love of literature and theatre, and also reminding me that life can be a comedy or a tragedy, depending on what I make of it. That’s my favorite, because it was drawn specifically for me and is absolutely one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else is that exact picture duplicated.
In 2005, my husband Sarge was deployed to Iraq and I got a small yellow ribbon tattooed on my right collarbone. That tattoo represents my strength, my loyalty, and my patriotism. It reminds me that if I can make it through a deployment, I can make it through anything. It has, honestly, given me comfort many times when I felt like I was on the edge of losing it.
And then, a week ago, I was looking for a way to get through the day of my big sister’s birthday, the first since she died a few months ago. I had known that I wanted to get a tattoo for her, and decided it would be a good day to go. So I got a new kanji, one that says “older sister” on the inside of my right wrist.
Many people I know don’t “get” the tattoo thing. Some people in the church actually think it’s a sin, though I can argue against that one all day. Some people have gotten tattoos and regret them. Some people just don’t see the point. And there have been times, in the last years, that I have been a little embarrassed of my tattoos in certain circles because I know that those people don’t understand. To them, it suggests a lack of class or a rebellion against things they hold dear.
But to me, these tattoos are just fancy scars. Don’t know what I mean? Have you ever sat around with friends and compared scars? You sit around and say, “See this scar on my ankle? I fell off a skateboard when I was twelve” or “I got this scar on my elbow when I fell out of my grandpa’s tree and a branch got stuck in my arm” or “This is from a surgery I had after I injured my knee playing soccer.” Whatever the scar is, there is a story to go with it. Those scars remind us of childhood or being an athlete in school or the friend who ran home to tell our mother we were hurt. They remind us of the BFF who sat with us in the hospital as we recovered from surgery or the relief we felt when our child was okay after an emergency c-section. Those scars are the story of our lives.
Just the same, the tattoos, to me, are a kind of art that tells the story of my life. I catch a glimpse of my wrist and remember the times I spent with my sister. Someone asks me about the tattoo on my ankle and I get to tell them about how much I love to read or go to plays. I look in the mirror to brush my hair and I see the yellow ribbon that reminds me how strong and capable I am. My tattoos are fancy scars that tell the story of my life.
I think I’m done getting tattoos. But then again, I’ve said that before. I’ve promised my husband and my parents that I definitely won’t get sleeved. My dad jokes that I’ll be a circus freak, and that fifty years from now the nursing homes will be filled with interesting-looking tatted-up senior citizens. But that’s okay. They love and understand me, and maybe after this post they’ll even understand me a little more.
I’ve decided not to be embarrassed about my tattoos anymore, no matter whose company I’m in. Just as I once encouraged my sister not to be embarrassed of the scars from her surgeries or her chemo port, I won’t be embarrassed of my fancy scars either. They are part of who I am, and if you love me I guess the tattoos come with the package. Circus freak and all.